After just one listen through Cloak and Cipher, the debut LP from indie rock trio Land of Talk, one thing becomes truly apparent: Lead singer Elizabeth Powell should be a force to be reckoned with in rock music for years to come. Powell’s vocal prowess is formidable and will leave you wanting to hear more. Surrounded by a supporting cast of moody electro-folk rock that proves only mildly entertaining on its own, Powell’s voice is clearly the star of the Cloak and Cipher show and she single-handedly brings down the house. Over the course of 10 songs, Powell deftly carves out her own vocal niche somewhere between Karen O’s bravado, Regina Spektor’s playfulness, and Sia’s charm.
Musically, Land of Talk shares much with friends and fellow Montreal denizens Broken Social Scene. Equal parts pop, post-punk, electronica, and folk, Land of Talk aims for an ambient, dreamy, ethereal fiefdom in the music world. Like Broken Social Scene, Land of Talk’s soundscapes don’t win you over with stellar hooks, superb vocal harmonies, and fist-pumping choruses. Instead, they rely on droney, vibrating phrases occasionally punctuated by mildly angular guitar posturing. Unlike Broken Social Scene, however, Land of Talk’s music ultimately feels empty without their lead singer’s presence.
Fortunately, Cloak and Cipher features Powell’s vocals at nearly every turn. However, the album never comes off sounding like the work of a one-trick pony. Instead, each track tends to stand on its own thanks largely to keen production work, in particular, with the use of subtle vocal effect wizardry. On the post-punky album-opening title track, Powell’s singing is slathered with a brilliant sheen of fuzz and reverb. Strumming acoustic guitar, a pendulum-like bassline, and marching drums add a simple foundation over which Powell is free to soar.
On “Quarry Hymns”, Powell’s voice is delicately layered, creating a chorus-like effect that lends drama to what would be a fairly staid rock anthem.
“The Hate I Won’t Commit”, a stark, mathy romp with complex rhythms, is the most musically-interesting song on Cloak and Cipher. The track begins with an onslaught of fuzz, out of which births a 6/8 waltz that shuffles along nicely to Powell’s trip-hoppy ah’s and ooh’s. On the chorus, the band shifts to a more typical rock feel, with a toe-tapping, angular guitar bit.
The ambient ballad “Color Me Badd” contrasts nicely with most of Cloak and Cipher‘s mid-tempo rock tendencies. With Sia-esque vocals, percolating electronic drums, and string arrangements, the song breaks up the album nicely.
Other highlights include “Blangee Blee”, a blissful pop song with a tribal drum beat, and “Swift Coin”, a buzzing punk diddy with a tasteful guitar solo.
Cloak and Cipher won’t wow you with hooks or musical prowess, but it does signal an exciting start for a band with tremendous potential, and it serves as an excellent first glimpse of a lead singer with loads of talent.